Why is the Left so nonchalant about anti-Semitism?

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An American Protestor in Lafayette Park, Washington, near the White House

The number of hate crimes against Jews living in the UK has doubled since the beginning of Israel’s military offensive in Gaza. In Europe, where violence and violent rhetoric against Jews is much higher than the UK, anti-Semitic attacks have become so frequent, that they have inspired a new wave of Jewish emigration to Israel. It is estimated that in France, 5,000 Jews will emigrate to Israel this year alone. So serious is the threat to Europe’s Jewish population, that the French, German, and Italian governments have issued a joint statement saying that “hostility against Jews, attacks on people of Jewish belief and synagogues have no place in our societies,” and that, in regards to pro-Palestinian rallies, they will do everything possible to combat “acts and statements that cross the line into antisemitism, racism and xenophobia.” Responding to the toxic atmosphere for Jews in Europe, the President of France, François Hollande, vows that fighting anti-Semitism will become a “national cause.” What’s going on in Europe? Robert Singer, the chief executive officer of the World Jewish Congress, sums up the problem this way: “I think Jews in Europe are being seen as Israeli.”

Even if they were Israeli, I would add, the flattening of people, policy and state to a single homogenous entity is, in itself, hateful. A minority within the Pro-Palestinian movement wish to collectively punish Jews for the deeds of the Israeli state—a state with which many Jews find themselves in stark opposition regarding its treatment of its Palestinian neighbours. Despite such hatred tarnishing the reputation and moral credibility of the Palestinian solidarity movement, however, here in Ireland my experience has been that the Left generally considers anti-Semitism either a non-issue or, as our own Chris Donnelly said on Twitter, a “red herring charge by those seeking to give cover to Israeli Gov actions.” To be fair to Chris, he means that the Israeli government and its supporters have a history of manipulatively using charges of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of zionism and the Israeli state’s murder of innocent Palestinian civilians and children, land grabbing, and its ongoing treatment of Arabs as second-class citizens. In the current context, with more than 1,000 Palestinians dead as a result of “Operation Protective Edge,” and Israel demonstrating no intention of lifting the blockade on Gaza or halting the settlements of the West Bank, it might seem tangential or distracting to focus on a minority within the larger protest movement. But the danger in leaving anti-Semitism within the pro-Palestinian camp unaddressed not only gives ammunition to the Israeli state and its right-wing supporters, but actually leaves vulnerable Jewish communities here in Europe at risk of further violence.

Let me be clear:  it doesn’t threaten the Palestinian solidarity movement to discern, challenge, and root out anti-Semitism from within our ranks. And yet, on Twitter, I’ve felt I belong in a category of my own: pro-Palestine, but likewise concerned about anti-Semitism and the wellbeing of our Jewish neighbours. I’ve noticed an alarming nonchalance about anti-Semitism from some here in Northern Ireland. For example, one person on Twitter argued, in regards to the two attacks on a Belfast synagogue, “Let’s not escalate a broken window above what it is.. token act of minority ignorance.” A Russia Today article about the same two incidents, however, sets them in a larger context linked to the rising trend of attacks against Jews in the UK. “Some of the more serious incidents reportedly include a rabbi who sustained an attack by four youths adjacent to a Jewish school in Gateshead, the smashing of a synagogue’s windows in Belfast, and a coterie of Asian men who drove through a Jewish district of Greater Manchester, yelling “Heil Hitler” while throwing missiles at local pedestrians.” My own suspicion about the British, Irish and American Left’s denial of anti-Semitism is that it’s a knee-jerk reaction to rightwing commentators who give cover to Israel by waving the flag of anti-Semitism. That is to say, because the Right says anti-Semitism exists within the Palestinian solidarity movement and the broader Left, and uses this to discredit political opposition to Israel, the Left feels a need to take a directly oppositional stance. Thus, the Left’s scripted response has become: it’s not anti-Semitism, it’s anti-Zionism. The Left has chosen to play by the Right’s rules.

Here in Ireland there is a—albeit an extreme minority—group of explicitly Jew-hating social media users who rely on the classic tropes of anti-Semitism to argue for Palestinian freedom. The most well-known anti-Semitic account in Ireland, I suspect, was @ClintDerry, who described himself as a “Native Irish Republican” and a “Holohoax realist.” Thankfully, the account has been suspended. His Twitter profile included a picture of a Palestinian girl waving the flag of her nation. Clint frequently went after Israel supporters by calling them “NaziKikes,” “NaziJews,” and other unsavoury epithets. In one tweet, he linked to an image that includes a long-nosed Jew and the word “Holocash.”Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 23.16.45

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 23.15.31The image relies on two traditional tropes of anti-Semitism. One, that the Holocaust was a Jewish-created, self-serving conspiracy. And two,  that rich jews use their influence to rig the system against normal, decent, hardworking people. The New Statesman ran an interesting article back in January that explored tropes similar to these within Occupy and other new Leftist movements. Anthony Clavane, exploring the question, “is anti-Semitism now the radicalism of fools,” argues in the piece that “no self-respecting person on the left should endorse anti-establishment positions that are in reality just cloaked anti-Semitism.”

Back to another local example, Belfast Twitter-user @joe42, vociferously anti-zionist in content, tweeted recently, “If you see Zionists phone this number immediately.” The user includes a link to a picture containing a rat extermination company. Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 23.10.00The extermination of vermin, of course, was the favoured Nazi analogy for dealing with Jews in Europe. These are a couple examples of an extremely hateful minority which by no means represent the mainstream within the pro-Palestinian movement here in Ireland. As Chris argued with me on Twitter, the “overwhelming majority of people opposed to Israeli treatment of Palestinians aren’t anti-Semitic.” I couldn’t agree more. The problem is the lack of acknowledgment that hatred against Jews in Europe is growing and that Israel’s recent invasion of Gaza has exacerbated a situation which for them was already bad.

Brendan O’Neill, writing in the Telegraph, makes the point that the Left is “becoming more anti-Semitic, or at least risks falling into the trap of anti-Semitism, sometimes quite thoughtlessly. In the language it uses, in the ideas it promotes, in the way in which it talks about the modern world, including Israel, much of the Left has adopted a style of politics that has anti-Semitic undertones, and sometimes overtones.” O’Neill identifies the Left’s preoccupation with conspiratorial thinking as the chief culprit driving anti-Semitism. The “Left’s embrace of conspiratorial thinking, its growing conviction that the world is governed by what it views as uncaring “cabals”, “networks”, self-serving lobbyists and gangs of bankers, all of which has tempted it to sometimes turn its attentions towards those people who historically were so often the object and the target of conspiratorial thinking – the Jews.” When, we on the Left, in our laziness or denial, allow anti-Semitism space to exist and grow, extremists among our ranks are encouraged in their determination to carry out hatred against Jewish minorities living in our cities—wrongly blaming them for Israel’s aggression. Our own choice of words and attitudes should reflect a determined effort on the Left to stand up to anti-Semitism, the way we would stand up to any other form of hatred that sought to denigrate and marginalise a group of people.

Another point Chris made on Twitter was that the US Left throughout twentieth Century was inspired by Jewish activists and thinkers. Again, I agree. But to say, as Chris does, that there is “no link” between the Left and anti-Semitism is wrong. Danniel Hannan, a fierce opponent of the contemporary Left, argued in the Telegraph on Tuesday that “Left-wing anti-Semitism is anything but a new phenomenon,” and goes on to trace the Left’s uncomfortable history with Jewish hatred. This is what I mean when I say that by ignoring our problem with anti-Semitism on the Left, however small or large it may be, we actually create an open door for attacks from the Right.

Anti-semitism is real and poses a severe threat to European Jewry. The Left must have the moral courage to interrogate where anti-Semitism has crept into its discourses and attitudes. We should also awaken to the fears and anxieties of our Jewish and Israeli neighbours who feel increasingly isolated and vulnerable. A broken window, as we know here in Northern Ireland, is meant to signal a much larger threat. I would caution those that dismiss the broken synagogue windows as a token incident to imagine what it must feel like as a very small minority to have your one—one!—place of communal gathering and worship attacked. Finally, not to draw too heavily on this, but the spectre of Kristallnacht still looms large in the Jewish memory. And in recent memory, the Kansas neo-Nazi shootings, the Nariman House in Mumbai, and many other horrific terror attacks on Jews across the world signal that in relation to anti-Semitism, there is no such thing as a token incident.

Let’s speak out against anti-Semitism wherever we find it. Even better, let’s speak out against anti-Semitism and all hatred because we, on the Left, believe in equality and justice for all, regardless of religion, race, gender, class, sexuality and anything else that may prevent someone from full participation in society. Let’s also continue to speak out against Israel’s madness and murder. Because the blockade needs to end immediately and the settlements need to stop—even be dismantled. If Israel wants to call itself a liberal democracy, it needs to seriously reconsider how it organises itself as a state. And it most certainly must stop killing innocent children and civilians and treating Arabs and second-class citizens.